In August Google employee James Damore made the news and even Wikipedia by publishing his speculation that female software engineers are underrepresented due to inherent biological differences. Although he admitted that implicit bias and explicit bias may exist, Damore wrote, “I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”
John Hennessy was the tenth president of Stanford University, founded successful startups, and serves on the board of Alphabet. Maria Klawe (@MariaKlawe) is the fifth president of Harvey Mudd College, served on Microsoft’s board, and is former president of the Association for Computing Machinery. David Patterson was chair of UC Berkeley’s computer science department and was also formerly president of the Association for Computing Machinery.
It’s an ironic conjecture historically, since many early programmers were women.
We make four points in rebuttal.
First, we know implicit bias exists, and that most of us have some. Such bias has also significant effects on observed performance. Bias, often implicit, continues to limit women’s progress in scientific and engineering fields. And the more implicit gender bias a nation has, the worse its girls perform in science and math.
Hence the need for effective programs to overcome unconscious biases.
Second, both established research and common sense tell us that members of underrepresented groups are more easily discouraged because they face daily biases that others don’t. Coaching programs—like Stanford Women in Computer Science, which has helped increase the number of women CS majors dramatically—can compensate. While anyone can selectively pick papers to support one’s version of “the truth”, virtually all scientists who have studied these issues agree that implicit bias and stereotyping are significant barriers for members of underrepresented groups. After all, the more egalitarian the society, the smaller the sex differences in science and math performance. When women feel secure and affirmed, they perform as well as men on math tests.
The three of us have tried to counteract these barriers as faculty and administrators, and we’ve seen women flourish under our tutelage.
Third, many labor studies predict a dramatic shortage of software engineers over the next five years, which will limit the growth of an industry that plays a vital role in our economy. To be competitive in this critical industry, employers must be able to draw from the entire US population, not only the one-third who are non-Hispanic white and Asian men. Moreover, a diverse workforce is correlated with successful institutions of all types: companies, universities, government, the military, and so on.
Fourth, while it’s important to discuss these sensitive issues, hashing them out face-to-face allows discussion participants to see the impact of their words and to identify flaws in their reasoning before circulating their misconceptions widely. Unfortunately, electronic communication can lose the nuances and the quick feedback of live conversations, and can lead to text that’s long-lived and demoralizes the underrepresented.
As one author whom Damore cited quips: “Using someone’s biological sex to essentialize an entire group of people’s personality is like surgically operating with an axe. Not precise enough to do much good, probably will cause a lot of harm.”
Dispiriting words can also have the unintended side-effect of condoning discrimination based on gender, race, or ethnicity.
This controversy isn’t political: Egalitarianism should be the American way. It’s about fairness, civility, and common sense. A real meritocracy demands nothing less.
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